John Sessions in 1988.
John Sessions in 1988. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

John Sessions remembered by William Boyd

John Sessions in 1988. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

11 January 1953 – 2 November 2020

The novelist recalls his friend, the actor and joyful comedian who suffered badly from stage fright and was too shy to publish his own stories

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 06.42 EST

I first met John Sessions nearly 30 years ago, in the early 1990s, when he was introduced to me by Ian and Victoria Hislop one evening at their house. Ian and John had worked together in the 80s on a show called After Midnight and, of course, on Spitting Image. In a way that first meeting prefigured all the others I would have with John. Even a fleeting encounter could engender a kind of spontaneous, personal, private cabaret. He was simply the funniest person I have ever met. You’d be having a perfectly normal conversation with John and suddenly his imagination would be triggered and he would go off on a riff, seasoned with a gallery of characters that he could imitate perfectly. It was a real privilege, and it was amazing how he just generously gave away – or threw out – all this amazing material. All his many close friends can testify to that unique hilarious joy he provided for his tiny select audiences of intimates.

That first night we met the riff was specific – about an elderly actor returning to the Belgrade theatre, Coventry, and being hugely offended that his photograph wasn’t anywhere to be seen in a building that was full of photos of other actors. The outraged expostulations of overweening vanity and self-regard went on to ever more surreal lengths. You laughed so hard it hurt. I remember another, later, riff in the back of a cab when John suddenly started imitating Tony Blair practising his “mockney” for Cherie, perfecting the glottal stop with the phrase “hot-water bottle”: “Ho’ wa’er bo’le – how’s that darling?” The cabby was laughing so much he nearly crashed.

That was the personal bonus, the delight and privilege of knowing John – who was the warmest, kindest, most empathetic and genuinely interested of friends. I once did a Q&A with him at the TUC HQ, Congress House, to an audience of hundreds. Suddenly his phone went off. He looked at it. “Sorry, I have to take this,” he said and left the stage abruptly. It turned out that it was his godson calling and he wanted to ask John a question about his homework. Priorities.

Over the years we also worked together fairly frequently – usually on the radio, and once in the theatre when he starred in a play of mine. John was the only person in the land who could imitate Anthony Burgess – I knew Anthony, and John’s version of him was uncanny. Our first collaboration was a radio play called Homage to AB broadcast shortly after Burgess’s death. We worked on two other radio plays based on my short stories where he was the lead or narrator. His focus and attention to detail was remarkable – but every meeting and rehearsal was riotously punctuated by unrestrained laughter.

John was also very clever indeed, but an unpretentious intellectual and he had ambitions to write. From time to time he would send me short stories, all of which were based in Scotland and dealt with aspects of his childhood. I told him they should be published but some kind of innate modesty – or inhibition – made him reluctant to submit them.

John Sessions in Longing by William Boyd at Hampstead theatre, 2013.
John Sessions in Longing by William Boyd at Hampstead theatre, 2013. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

John had his demons – who hasn’t? – and they could occasionally assume worrying proportions in his psyche. His stage fright lasted almost 20 years. He famously “dried” in the play My Night with Reg in 1994 and declared he wouldn’t return to the stage again – the arena in which he had made his name. When my play Longing, based on two Chekhov short stories, was being cast at Hampstead theatre in 2013, I asked him if he would consider playing a vulgar loud-mouthed Russian landowner called Dolzikhov and he finally relented – not without trepidation – but was superb and untroubled by the experience during its six-week run.

John recorded another of my short stories for Radio 4 just a few days before his sudden and wholly unexpected death. We spoke on the phone about the recording – typically, he had precise questions about what type of Inverness accent to employ – but I hadn’t actually seen him for over a year. Our last meeting had been at the Chelsea Arts Club. John was looking smart in a suit and tie. He was markedly slimmer, also – he had given up alcohol four years previously and was ordering a pot of tea. I complimented him on his new svelteness and generally healthy demeanour. In this new incarnation he had found a kind of serenity and calmness, at last, and that was remarkable and consoling. I know that his huge number of friends will agree. We will all miss him terribly. It’s very hard, almost impossible, to come to terms with a world that doesn’t contain John Sessions.